or: How to Follow Strictly a Corrupt Tradition
First of all, I would like to specify that the kind of rule-breaking I intend to target in this post is not the kind in which a monk breaks a rule, sees the offense, confesses it, and expiates it. Most strict monks, and almost all “exemplary” ones, do break Vinaya rules in this way regularly, however, so I may as well discuss the matter a little before moving on to the target.
There are very many Vinaya rules for monks, I’d guess somewhere between two and three thousand. Many of them are obsolete or otherwise difficult to break (e.g. offering food with one’s own hands to a naked non-Buddhist ascetic, using an alms bowl made from a human skull, eating lion meat); but there are plenty than can be broken easily, even by strict monks. For example, the rule against drinking alcohol is worded in such a way that even if the monk drinks something alcoholic accidentally, he still breaks the rule. Thus on one occasion long ago I was offered some herbal medicine stuff that I was assured contained no alcohol, but when I tried a sip of it, it tasted like it was about 80 proof. Or on a few other occasions I was offered some drink that, in the hot Burmese weather, had started to ferment spontaneously; I’d take a drink and the stuff would taste like wine. So in such cases one takes the hit and confesses it.
Also, some rules can easily be broken in a moment of careless unrestraint. For example, unnecessarily looking up in a public place (as monks are supposed to look down in public). Or making a humorous reference about somebody else while talking. Or using water while suddenly entertaining the doubt that maybe there are living creatures in it. Such offenses can occur rather often, especially if a monk is not Vinaya-obsessed, and again, the thing to do is simply to confess it, and the ecclesiastical reset button is pushed, clearing the offenses.
Then there are rules that even a serious monk may break deliberately, considering not breaking the rule to be more objectionable than breaking it. For example, it is against Vinaya for a monk to practice medicine on laypeople. The purpose of this is partly to prevent monks from working for a living like “householders who enjoy pleasures of the senses,” with people going to them for health issues rather than Dhamma (with such monks consequently practicing Dhamma less and teaching it less), and another reason is that, if the monk messes up and the person gets worse or dies, then people may blame the Sangha for it. Anyway, when I was living in a remote forest area of Burma a supporter of mine, really a good guy who I liked as a friend, told me that his daughter had had malaria for several months. (Malaria is endemic in this area, and potentially deadly.) I had some state of the art malaria cure; so, even though it was against the rules I considered it to be better to break a minor rule than let a person remain very ill and possibly even die. So I gave him the pills for his daughter, and she got better. Another example of arguably “righteous” rule-breaking occurred long ago when a young and very serious American man wanted to be ordained as a bhikkhu under venerable Taungpulu Sayadaw, but he didn’t have the permission of his parents to be ordained, as they were devout Christians who disapproved of such a course. Taungpulu Sayadaw ordained him anyway, saying, “The Sangha is willing to make the sacrifice.” That is, they were willing to break the minor rule of ordaining a man without his parents’ consent, for the good of helping him to live the Holy Life. Afterwards they confessed the offense.
Then again, there are rules the breaking of which is practically unavoidable. For example, it is against Vinaya to enter a toilet with one’s upper robe on; one should strip to the waist before entering an outhouse. At the same time, it is against Vinaya to remove one’s upper robe in a public place. So any monk who has to use the toilet at a public place just has to choose which rule he prefers to break by taking the pee, since he breaks one either way, yet his back teeth are floating, he has to pee so bad. So in all these cases, when a monk breaks a rule, he just makes confession to another monk, in accordance with other Vinaya rules designed to deal with the situation. It’s all built into the system. Almost all monks break rules like this. There are a very few bhikkhus who are so conscientious, or fanatical, or whatever, that they would actually let a girl drown rather than break a rule by swimming out and saving her, or who never unnecessarily look up in public for that matter. Such are rare specimens.
But, as I say, this kind of rule-breaking, with the monk committing, seeing, and expiating the offense (as I notoriously did in a big way a few years ago), is not the kind of rule-breaking that I intend to discuss here. The kind I intend to discuss is with regard to rules broken chronically and habitually, sometimes even as a matter of monastery policy or venerated tradition, with no acknowledgement of the offense, and consequently no confession or other expiation. Because of this phenomenon even many strict and “exemplary” bhikkhus never have a single day of pure Vinaya restraint or pure morality in the entire course of their life as a monastic.
This sort of thing is common in religious systems, I think. It’s common in the human race. Conformity is seen as essential, even if it is conformity to a corrupt tradition. The idea seems to be, “If everyone else is breaking the same rule, then it’s all right”—but this is essentially a bovine herd instinct, and not Dhamma.
The issue of conformity arose at the second Buddhist great council, in ancient times. Monks had started handling money and breaking other rules, and one topic of debate at the council was whether it was right to follow one’s teacher with regard to Vinaya interpretation and practice. The Theravadin side argued that sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t—implying that following one’s teacher is valid only if one’s teacher’s conduct is in harmony with real Vinaya. The Theravadin side won the debate. So regardless of whether breaking certain rules is justified and universal in a tradition, technically it’s still breaking rules. Following are some examples.
Clothing (including shoes, hats, etc.): With regard to robes, I may write someday a more technical article than this discussing the originally correct manner of sewing and wearing robes, as well as their correct size, although here I’ll skip the manner in which robes are made, the proper materials, etc., and will just mention one thing about size. According to the 92nd pācittiya rule of the bhikkhu pātimokkha, a monk may not wear a robe as big as or bigger than the Buddha’s upper or outer robe, which was nine handspans by six, according to the size of the Buddha’s own hand. The Vinaya commentarial tradition has decreed that the Buddha’s handspan was 3½ times the length of an ordinary man’s handspan, thereby causing the rule to mean that a monk may not wear a robe more than seven meters in length, which of course is no rule at all, since nobody would even want to wear a robe that big. Assuming that the Buddha’s hand was not much bigger than that of the average monk, and certainly not three and a half times as big, then the size of the average monk’s robe nowadays is about twice the allowable size. If one reads the texts one may see that in the Buddha’s time monks wore relatively small robes; and two of the most influential Vinaya texts in English, the Vinayamukha translation and Ajahn Ṭhanissaro’s The Buddhist Monastic Code, point out this very fact that monks’ robes should be much smaller than the ones usually worn. But if you see a picture of either of the venerable authors of these two books you will see that, more than likely, they also are wearing big robes which they admit are in violation of the rules of Vinaya. Why? Conformity. But that doesn’t make it any less against the rules, even though the author of the Vinayamukha was a Thai Sangharāja.
The ironic thing about this for me is that monks living in the temperate zone, like in Western countries, continue to wear robes in conformity with a corrupt South Asian tradition, which then serves as a justification for breaking more rules. They continue to wear robes suitable for a hot, tropical climate, with thick cloth being too thick to wear in the peculiar Asian way, especially in the Thai manner with the robe wrapped around one arm most of the time. So this difficulty is seen as a sufficient reason for breaking the rule against keeping and wearing extra clothing also.
According to the first nissaggiya pācittiya rule of the pātimokkha a monk is allowed to own and wear three robes (lower, upper, and outer), with any clothing in excess of this to be relinquished (given or thrown away) within ten days of acquiring the excess. Any piece of cloth larger than eight finger widths by four finger widths (according to the Buddha’s hand again) is counted as robe cloth, i.e. clothing, unless determined for some other use, such as a towel or bed sheet. Thus the rule includes not only robes, but also underwear, shirts, sweaters, coats, socks, stocking caps, and Mahayana Buddhist pajamas. All of this technically is against Vinaya, yet almost all monks living in the West, including the “exemplary” ones, violate the rule without compunction, and do not confess it—which wouldn’t work anyway unless they relinquished all the extra clothes beforehand, which they do not want to do. The stocking caps, underwear, socks, etc. are also layman’s clothing, the wearing of which is in violation of another rule.
One important point to bear in mind, it seems to me, is that, according to the Pali texts, it was during the coldest time of year in the ancient Ganges Valley that the Buddha decided that three robes are enough for any monk. It is stated that at this time of year (in ancient times before the greenhouse effect kicked in) the temperature got down to around freezing. Also, allowed in the Vinaya texts is a kind of woolen felt blanket called a santhata, also called a pāvāra or pāvuraṇa, which may be worn as a cloak. I can assert from my own experience that three small, thick robes and a felt blanket are plenty for staying warm in environments that are freezing cold. Western monks dressing like Eskimos in temperatures above freezing is simply a case of bovine conformity, weakness, or both. At temperatures well below freezing, however, some “righteous” rule-breaking may be in order. But still it would probably count as breaking rules, and something to be confessed.
One way that ostensibly strict monks avoid the rule about extra clothing is by determining all extra clothes (and sometimes the regulation three robes also) as “accessory cloth,” i.e., cloth not used as clothing, but kept for other uses. But what the hell is that, if not lying? There are two ways in which a monk may determine cloth for this or that use: by speech and by physical action. It is stated that if a monk determines a robe to be accessory cloth by physical action, he just holds it and waves it around a little while mentally determining it as whatever. But what more obvious way of determining a robe physically than by just putting it on and wearing it! If one wears it as a robe, then it’s a robe. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…. Seriously. By refusing to acknowledge that they are in fact breaking rules, monks creep into the realm of dishonesty, or just following and believing corrupt nonsense, refusing to see the obvious.
This very same approach could be used to avoid all sorts of rules. Want to drink whiskey? Call it medicine, or “accessory liquid.” Want to use money? Call it “accessory paper.” Don’t want to admit that something is what it is? Call it something else! It wouldn’t count for diddle at a real trial at a real law court, as such reasoning is obviously bogus, but no matter. The situation reminds me of the old Burmese monastic saying, “If one is skillful in Vinaya one may kill a chicken.” Skillful in all the lame loopholes, that is.
With regard to shoes, only certain kinds of sandals which leave the toes and heels open are allowable. Some strict-ish monks break this one in the temperate zone, but most of them break a different one: A monk is not allowed to wear shoes at all in public places, unless he is unwell. The danger of frostbite in subzero weather would presumably count as a valid reason for wearing shoes in town, but that usually is not a present danger. Again, bovine conformity and weakness prevail over Vinaya.
three ways of wearing robes
Food: Non-strict monks may break all sorts of food rules, such as eating food that wasn’t properly offered (which includes a monk touching a huge table that he couldn’t lift while laypeople intending to offer the food on the table also touch it or group-lift it), eating food stored at the monastery, eating before dawn (possibly going with some chart that claims dawn has dawned when meanwhile the sky remains totally dark), eating food that they cooked themselves, and so on. But strict monks from Thai traditions notoriously eat cheese and dark chocolate in the afternoon…which on the face of it appears to be eating food at an unallowable time. Now, there is nothing inherently immoral in eating a piece of cheese in the afternoon. What is at least verging on immorality, however, is the cheesy justifications given for breaking the rule by eating it. Venerable Ajahn Ṭhanissaro, in his first book on monastic discipline, actually suggested that eating cheese in the afternoon is all right because cheese is not substantial food, but is actually a kind of butter, which is allowed as a medicine. Almost needless to say, this strikes me as blatant sophistry of a rather base sort. (I call it “backwards logic”: starting with the conclusion one wants to arrive at—that eating cheese in the afternoon is allowable—and then working backwards, cooking up the most plausible rationalization for it.) Of course cheese is substantial food; it is a meat substitute for vegetarians, right? It’s almost pure curd…although it can’t be called curd by the monks who want to eat it, because curd is considered to be substantial food in Vinaya and thus must not be eaten in the afternoon. So they can say what they like, but strict-ish monks who eat cheese in the afternoon are doing it because of 1) conformity and 2) weakness or else a simple desire to eat something. The only Burmese monks who would eat cheese in the afternoon would also eat rice and curry in the afternoon—and I admit there are quite a few of those.
Dark chocolate is a slightly more subtle issue. One argument I have heard is that dark chocolate (with no milk, as milk is considered to be substantial food) is actually a kind of congealed juice, and juice is allowable in the afternoon. What to me sounds more plausible is that dark chocolate is not substantial food, and is medicinal in some way. Even if it is congealed juice, because it contains a significant amount of sugar in solid form it is to be treated as medicinal. (Yes, sugar is medicinal. It’s good for you.) So only monks who are unwell are allowed to eat it in the afternoon. Unfortunately, however—or fortunately, depending on how one chooses to look at it—the medieval commentarial tradition states that a monk who is tired or just hungry may consider himself to be unwell. So a monk can’t eat chocolate in the afternoon as food, but he can eat it because he’s hungry. My question here is, What’s the difference? How many people think things like, “I’m not hungry right now, but I want to eat this in order to replenish depleted nutrients,” eh? Not very many. And even if they do, they’d probably be more likely to eat spirulina than chocolate in such a case. It’s just more traditional corruption and sophistry which is very convenient for monks to follow. I’ve been told that at Wat Pah Nanachat the monks pass the afternoon treat tray around the sangha three times, with the monks sitting there eating the most expensive designer dark chocolate, “like householders who enjoy pleasures of the senses.”
This condition that medicinal substances like sugar be eaten in the afternoon only if a monk is not feeling well applies not only to chocolate of course, but also to hard candy and other treats. But the main reasons why it is indulged in are conformity, weakness, and a borderline-dishonest desire for it not to be against the rules. Unless you sincerely believe that feeling hungry is the same as being unwell.
Money: There is one Vinaya rule concerning money that may be virtually impossible to follow correctly, with very few monks succeeding, especially in the West, and that is the rule prohibiting monks from handling the stuff. The thing is that a monk is not only prohibited from handling it, he is prohibited even from consenting to someone else keeping it or handling it on his behalf. The rule states that if someone expresses the intention of having some money kept in a fund for a monk’s benefit, if the monk doesn’t like the idea at all he may remain silent, thereby allowing it to happen, but if he likes the idea he is required to tell the person not to do it. If they stubbornly persist after he forbids them, then it is allowable. I have found that the most viable way to follow this rule is to live in some remote forest area of tropical Asia where people have little money, and to avoid monasteries; or at the very least to live in a deeply Buddhist culture where monks are supported, and to avoid having anything at all to do with money. But in the West especially it can be damn near impossible.
Some strict-ish monks don’t actually touch money, but they not only consent to it being kept for them, they also tell supporters or monastery attendants what to do with it. Endorsing a check is a similar case: although technically it may not be handling money, it is still endorsing an order to “pay to the order of,” which is still handling money indirectly. So that also is against the rules, and an extremely convenient one to break for abbots running a monastery especially. Much of this kind of rule-breaking is by monks conscientiously trying to follow rules but being unaware of all the technical complications in Vinaya. It requires careful study to avoid breaking rules, and most monks, even most conscientious ones, don’t do enough of that. And even if they do, conformity to the corrupt tradition is considered to be more important than conformity to the original rule, which behavior is totally in conformity with human nature.
Some Miscellaneous Ones: The bogus measure of the Buddha’s allegedly giant hand results in several other broken rules even among strict monks: for example, a monk’s bed may not be more than eight finger widths above the floor, or about 15cm. Also, quilted bedding, like sleeping bags, are against the rules. Some rules with regard to human females are very easily broken, especially in non-Buddhist countries, and are broken by many “exemplary” monks, such as traveling by arrangement with them or sitting alone with them (and whether or not a door is open is irrelevant, as a rule is still broken if no other male can see and hear them). Even using a full-length toothbrush is technically against Vinaya, as there is a rule that a monk may not use a tooth-cleaning stick longer than eight of his own finger widths (or shorter than four). I still have a habit of cutting off part of the handle of my toothbrush, which I have retained from my extremely strict days. So again, almost all monks, including strict ones, are breaking Vinaya rules all the time, generally without acknowledging them or confessing them. And, as I pointed out in a previous post on Vinaya, even the way they confess their offenses is usually against the rules.
Towards the beginning of Ajahn Ṭh.’s first book on Vinaya he called for reform…and then throughout the rest of the book he pretty much ignored genuine reform and endorsed an amazing quantity of lame loopholes from the medieval commentaries and Thai tradition, as well as cooking up a few new ones. That was disappointing, especially as my hard-ass strictness was going full blast in those days. Really, though, Western Theravada Buddhist monasticism seems to be blowing a golden opportunity for some really beneficial reform, since there is really no call for importing traditional Asian corruptions along with Dhamma/Vinaya. But not only have the old corruptions been maintained, new corruptions (like the arctic expedition gear unnecessarily worn by so many bhikkhus) are being added. And this in addition to the almost mandatory luxury of life in modern Western civilization.
If Western monks really do not want to follow ancient Vinaya rules, it seems to me that one obvious choice is to develop a new order of renunciants in the West, not officially bhikkhus but something else, with rules adjusted to fit a new world order. This would also allow for a genuinely equal order of nuns to be established—although that will be a topic for the next post.
Which is better: breaking a rule, acknowledging that one has broken it, and expiating the offense in accordance with Vinaya itself, or breaking it and refusing to admit that one has broken it at all, and furthermore justifying the act with absurdly flimsy rationalizations? Or in other words, which is better: to be straightforwardly lax, or to rig the game so that one can consider oneself to be strict? The first option may seem more shameless, but it is also more honest, with oneself as well as with others. But do as you like. That’s what I do too. (I laugh)